It’s one thing to play with your food. Quite another when it actually wants to play back.
For five weeks, I’m becoming an ersatz pig farmer. Which is to say that I’ve purchased a Hampshire piglet who will live out his remaining days at Gleason Ranch in Bodega. In late September, he will be slaughtered and eaten. Though the ranch’s owners, Nancy Prebilich and Cindy Holland, will do the brunt of the care-taking, I’ve paid for the pig’s upkeep, I’ll help with the slaughter and be a part of the butchering. Our family will also help with farm chores over several weekends and plan to build a new outdoor run for the piglets.
It’s my own experiment as a meat eater in getting as up-close and personal with my food as I possibly can. As squirmy and uncomfortable as the whole process promises to be, I’m all in. Here’s why…
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans eat, on average, about 51 pounds of pork per person per year. Though our porcine consumption is still considerably lower than beef (around 60 pounds) or chicken (82 pounds), that’s still a whole lot of sausage, bacon, pork chops and chicharrones.
To feed our demand, about 112 million pigs are slaughtered for food each year, according to the USDA. But how many of us have ever actually seen a pig up close, not to mention actually harvested (a nice name for slaughtering) one? Typically we’re more familiar with the end result — ham sandwiches and hot dogs — than we are with the animals that actually produce the meat. We proclaim our bacon fetishes on t-shirts and relish pulled-pork and ribs without a second thought to the fact that our dinner once was a living, breathing creature. It’s easy to remove yourself from the neatly processed slabs of meat in packages that show nary a trace of blood, hair or, well, life. In fact, many children don’t even know what kind of animal bacon comes from.
“I raised my daughter a vegetarian until she could tell me where the type of meat she wanted came from. Her first meat was bacon when she was 5; she knew she was eating pig,” said Kerry Hurley of Santa Rosa, who responded to the recent announcement of my edible intentions.
With that kind of disconnect, it’s also easy to take our food for granted. Like most of us, I throw away copious amounts of grocery store food that’s gone bad in my fridge without much guilt other than the financial impact. In fact, Americans toss more than 25 percent of the food we buy — about a pound a day for each of us, according to government studies. But the lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and herbs I’ve grown in my own backyard? My family knows better than to waste a scrap; we are emotionally invested in it from seed to table.
And that connection is what I’m looking for with my pig.
The first step is actually coming face to face with my pig. Halfway to Bodega Bay, miles from much of anything but dairy farms and rolling hills, Nancy Prebilich runs a family-owned ranch that’s been in operation for more than 100 years. You may know her from her chickens, which chefs throughout Sonoma covet. But today, we’re heading out to the pig barn, which is more like a concrete bunker with a roof.
When the door swings open two things happen: The smell of pig feces hits my face like a fist. Then a 1,000-pound sow launches herself with surprising agility onto the half wall of her pen, two feet dangling over the side, and sounds the Squealarm — a terrifying cacophony of squeals, grunts and chomping that apparently means “Food is coming!” Within seconds, 17 of her barn mates join the deafening dinner call. Nearly all of them are up on their hind legs, sniffing and pawing at the air. These are animals who could easily crush my sad little human body with their tremendous girth. It doesn’t help that pigs are notoriously nearsighted and probably wouldn’t even notice me flailing beneath them. And it’s no secret that pigs are smart animals, so I know they’re paying close attention to our every move.
It’s a truly frightening moment for a pig newbie.
I quickly turn my attention to the end of the barn as Prebilich begins pouring feed to the adults. In the corner is a newly-weaned litter of piglets, about eight weeks old. These guys are more my speed, at about 30 pounds each. They’d merely knock me down and nip my ears if I fell in their pen. The most aggressive little tyke comes to the wall to sniff me, then brushes past his six siblings, pushing and playing in an obvious attempt to get my attention. Black, with a band of pink around his belly, I almost feel bad singling him out as my intended victim.
Many have warned me not to name him, a way to spare the pain of having to slaughter something that had become a pet.
“Don’t name them and tried not to get too attached. We raised rabbits, pigs and chickens when I was growing up and when I named them and bonded to them it was AWFUL when they were butchered. But if they were just generic animals, it wasn’t so bad,” said Megan Holt of Santa Rosa.
I ignored the advice. My little Hampshire is now named Reggie Bacon. He cost me $180.
In coming weeks, we plan to help out with Reggie’s care and get to know this hearty domestic breed that originally hails from Hampshire, England. Though not one of the more trendy heritage breeds (Red Wattle and Duroc are culinary darlings currently), I’m told he’ll be just as tasty, especially since we’re supplementing his feed with local Gravenstein apples and acorns. I feel secure in the knowledge that this pig will want for nothing and spend his days sunning, rooting and playing with his siblings. As a mobile butcher once told me, “These animals only have one bad day in their life.”
Regarding that day, we plan to end things as humanely as possible when he reaches about 60 pounds. Like the other pigs at Gleason Ranch, he has been bred for market. As a male, his die was cast at birth, as most males are eaten while many females are saved for breeding stock. To celebrate Reggie, local chef and educator Roger Praplan of La Gare will butcher the carcass at the Great Handcar Regatta on Sept. 25 during a demonstration. Every bit of the animal that can be used for food will be used.
It’s tough stuff, and my journey is just beginning. I’m confident that we’ll become attached to Reggie — in fact, my mother is already planning to organize a campaign to Save Reggie. Realistically, however, if we don’t eat him, someone else will. And that’s just a fact. The difference is that I plan to learn from and appreciate the sacrifice Reggie will make for us, not just think of him as another meal.
Comments have unfortunately gone past the point of rational discourse. The unfortunate reality is that I actually was paying a lot of attention to the passion and voices of folks who were making cogent statements about their views on veganism and animal compassion — until a few folks started going off the rails. Then everyone just goes away and it’s a few impassioned voices screaming in an empty room. It’s not a great way to make a point.
What I will say is that one of the folks from a local compassionate care group did start a dialogue with me. I have asked her and some vegans from her organization to meet with me for lunch next week (at a vegan restaurant). I hope to hear their side of this story and, if the discussion goes well, write about their group and their feelings as part of this ongoing story.
At this point, I am closing comments, I hope temporarily until the heat subsides a bit and people can begin to talk rather than scream. As ever, I applaud passion when tempered with reason. Let’s get back to that.